Restoring Our Rivers: The Elwha Legacy Conference

Indian Shaker Church Spiritual Leader Oliver “Bosco” Charles leads First Salmon Ceremony, Elwha River, 1995. From Unconquering the Last Frontier.

The removal of the Elwha River dams, beginning in 2012, has provided exciting professional opportunities, executing a dam de–construction and ecosystem restoration plan.

But it wasn’t always that simple.

The Elwha is a not a story about concrete, or sediment, soil chemistry, or cubic feet per second. It is and remains a story about people. And what matters most to us.

Behind the science is a story.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math connect to human geography.

Aerial Photograph of Lake Mills, PHOTO : LUNDAHL, Leica M6, 35 mm. Summicron (for the National Park Service) Fujichrome 400

The Elwha Legacy Conference begins with this premise, focusing on environmental justice, race, and gender, as portrayed in the ways we recall the past and engage the future.

The Fall 2020 On–Line Conference, presented by the Greenbelt Society, and Hunter College Dept. of Geography and Environmental Science, CUNY, brings together experts, stakeholders, and tribes from watersheds under review and consideration for restoration, to exchange knowledge and inspire students. Watch this page for our October schedule and how to participate.

Questioning “Progress”: An unfamiliar science

Progress was a word bandied about often.

Nothing is Impossible

Courtesy North Olympic Library System, Port Angeles, WA

I’ll never see the salmon come back– the way it was in my time. I’ll never see it again.

But I want my grandchildren and great grandchildren to see it.

Let them see what I saw. And it was plentiful.

Beatrice Charles, Elwha Klallam Elder


The Elwha River Valley from Hurricane Ridge–Olympic National Park. PHOTO : LUNDAHL, Mamiya 7, 35 mm Panoramic

Twenty eight years ago

Conditions on the ground: A tribe without the economic resources or a natural bounty to bring about change, and an underfunded National Park fighting anti-federal, “Wise Use” groups, seemed to suggest the existing “it’s Impossible” narrative would continue for some time to come.

Indian Family, Early 20th Century. Courtesy North Olympic Library System

When I arrived, the “Jobs vs. Owls” wars were in full swing. A spotted owl was nailed to a telephone pole outside town. What occurred during “Redwood Summer” in Mendocino, was also happening at Clayoquot Sound in Canada.

Demonstrators prevented the logging of old growth forests. In Washington State, the nearby town of Port Angeles had been a center for the logging and fishing economy.

In this modern environment lived the Klallam people. Their villages had once extended over a wide area including most of the Olympic Peninsula. There were village sites on the Lower Elwha River, close to the ocean, or Strait, and on the upper river, in what is now Olympic National Park.

Filmmaker Robert Lundahl

Nature Does it Better

Around the world, the trend was headed the opposite way. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the Naramada Dam in India, and the Belo Monte Dam on Brazil’s Xingu River began to usher in a new era of hydro-electric energy production with unforseen impacts to communities, riparian species, and ecosystems.

In Japan, one undammed salmon river remained on Hokkaido, the northernmost island, while the Ainu of the forest and coastlines fought for fundamental rights.

Now along the Klamath, the Trinity, the Matilija, the Snake, and the Columbia, one may also hear the cries for courage, rectitude, equity, and release of rivers from their outdated and unnecessary industrial constrictions.

Among the testimonies to the “once-wild-eyed vision of a restored river” is Poet and Essayist, Tim McNulty’s “Letter to America: The Elwha, a River and a Vision Restored.

And it is that “wild–eyed vision” which has also attracted independent filmmakers, each with a unique ability and passion to tell the story in motion pictures:

Jennifer Galvin’s The Memory of Fish. (2014)

Jessica Plumb’s and John Gussman’s Return of the River. (2014)

and Robert Lundahl’s Unconquering the Last Frontier (2000)

About Unconquering the Last Frontier: The Lesson Plan

Contact the Filmmaker



Aerial Photograph, Glines Canyon Dam (with airplane tire), PHOTO : LUNDAHL (For the National Park Service), 2004, Leica M6, 35 mm. Summicron. Fujichrome 400

Women on the Front Line

It was the first week in March, 1994, when the sun first shone after a long winter.

Down the road to the hatchery walked two grandmothers, Bea Charles and Adeline Smith. Adeline and Bea were best friends. They had stuck together through all, from childhood.

Adeline spoke first. ‘We were told you want to hear a story.”

Robert Lundahl

Beatrice Charles: “That was our way of life” from Unconquering the Last Frontier, clip.

Butch Charles (Elwha Klallam) hauls in a net, aboard the Kraken with Rob Elofson, 11:00 pm., Straight of Juan De Fuca, 1999.. PHOTO : LUNDAHl, Leica M6, 50 mm. Summilux.

Adeline Smith: We were just Indians, and that was the treatment we got

We were Just Indians and that was the treatment we got. Clip from Unconquering the Last Frontier. Adeline Smith.

Courtesy North Olympic Library System

Courtesy North Olympic Library System

No judge is going to turn down any kind of award to them


Klallam Dancers, Unconquering the Last Frontier screening, Seattle. PHOTO : ZMEKHOL

Positive Visions and Cultural Change

Steam Tractor. PHOTO courtesy North Olympic Library System

When we discuss technology, the conversation is often framed in terms of “technological change.” Technologies are sometimes said to be “disruptive,” meaning, they create change.

Arguably, technologies related to information and energy have the greatest capacity for disruption.

This story is about power, and the cultural and environmental impacts brought about by energy development on the Elwha River over 100 years ago.

In 2012, the two dams on the Elwha River began to be removed.


Lower Elwha Dam, 2005. PHOTO : LUNDAHL, (For the National Park Service) .Leica M6 35 mm. Summicron. Fujichrome 400.

“Right now, when it’s just us and a river waiting for the dams to come down, it may be difficult to conceive of the inspirational power of what you have done.

But when the salmon return, when the dippers and the herons and beavers and the bears crowd the banks, when the life of the ocean and the mountains are joined again, when justice is done for native people, you will have here something that moves lives and inspires people thousands of miles and continents away from here. It will be compelling, empirical proof of the health and practical genius of our own democracy.

This will be the place where our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren can see the life of the planet restored. They will see the tangible power and great beauty of what you have achieved. We are restoring honor. We are keeping promises. We are doing the right thing. Your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren — they will be proud of you. It will be the great gift of the Elwha — Hope.”

Senator Bill Bradley


Steelhead returning to the Elwha River, courtesy NW Treaty Tribes